Pope Francis’ remarks about lesbian and gay people are bound to bring about change in the church. Not everyone will agree with that statement. Yet, the road to change in the church on LGBT issues may not be a straight one, but who said that straight is always better? Let me explain.
As happened after the pope’s “Who am I to judge?” remark of mid-summer, some commentators have pointed out again after his America interview that nothing has really changed in church teaching because of the pope’s statements. Pope Francis’ comments do not offer any moral approval of same-sex relationships or marriage equality. Those who understand church teaching about gay and lesbian people know that official documents have always called for respect and understanding of people with a same-sex orientation, so some have felt that the pope added nothing new and that nothing has changed.
But, as we know from experience, if anyone needed to hear Pope Francis’ message about obsession it is the Catholic bishops in the U.S. Their campaign against marriage equality over the last decade has quite often overstepped its boundaries and given the appearance of obsession. Although they often gave lip service to the teaching about respect and understanding, such a message always seemed incredibly shallow given the vitriol they used to condemn same-sex relationships and marriage. No one believed what the bishops were saying about respect and understanding since their rhetoric provided a stronger message in the opposite direction.
Here’s a case in point. On the same day that Pope Francis’ interview became public. Catholic News Service ran a story about Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of Military Services, issuing guidelines about same-sex couples. The news story stated:
“Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services has issued guidelines on ministering to same-sex couples for military chaplains and other priests and deacons who serve Catholics in the military, U.S. Foreign Service personnel and those at Veterans Affairs facilities. The document, ‘Renewed Fidelity in Favor of Evangelization,’ highlights the need to ‘reiterate with clarity the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality’ but also points out that, as St. Paul reminds believers, ‘it must never be forgotten that the human condition occasions many failings.’ “
Clarity? Does the archbishop think that there is anyone who doesn’t know of the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to same-sex relationships? And why is homosexuality considered part of human “failings.” When bishops speak like this, they show they do not understand or respect LGBT people regardless of how much they say they do.
Pope Francis’ remarks ring truer, though. Nothing has shown that he will support full marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples. (Though he is on the record for supporting civil unions–a compromise that, while not ideal, is a giant step forward, and one that the U.S. bishops have not agreed to yet. ) But his comments do seem to indicate respect and understanding. He may not be where progressive Catholics might like him, but he is further down the road than his predecessors, and miles ahead of the U.S. bishops. It’s no wonder that Sister Margaret Farley, a renowned theologian of sexual ethics, has said that she feels this pope can be reached on LGBT issues.
John Becker, in The Huffington Post, stated that Pope Francis’ remarks seem too much like window-dressing:
“LGBT Catholics, their non-LGBT allies, and the greater LGBT community should really stop breaking out the champagne and balloons for this pope every time he says a few nice-sounding words about gays and lesbians. Believe me, I’m as encouraged by his change in tone as the next person, but after centuries of persecution, the Catholic Church owes its LGBT members a whole lot more than just an acknowledgement of their existence.”
While I agree that LGBT people deserve a lot more, I disagree that these remarks are not a reason to celebrate. The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn’t acknowledge that true change comes from the bottom, not the top. Pope Francis’ remarks are not the true change. The true change is that Catholics in the pews and Catholics at the “middle management” level (pastors, principals, college administrators, etc.) have already been living out real respect and understanding for LGBT people and have been working towards their full equality, including marriage.
Yes, Catholics should break out the champagne and balloons because a pope is finally showing he is following their lead, not the other way around.
Still for other Catholics, who may have been fearful of church sanction if they expressed any support for LGBT people, the pope’s statements are an example for them to follow. I can’t say for sure that we will see any change in church teaching on LGBT matters any time soon, but I do predict that we will see an outpouring of support for LGBT people from many more Catholics who up until now have been reluctant to do so.
In The Washington Post “On Faith” blog, Elizabeth Tenety lists eight ways that Pope Francis is changing the church, including bringing people back, including young people. With more and more progressive Catholics come back to the fold, after having been alienated for so many decades, the Catholic Church will witness a demographic change. They, too, will add to the pro-LGBT movement in the church. Pope Francis is appealing to the people who will make the church more LGBT-friendly.
When demographics and pastoral practice start to change, doctrinal change will eventually have to catch up. Change in the church happens first in practice and then in theory, not the other way around. Pope Francis’ statements are going to open a floodgate of many acts of acceptance and dialogue on LGBT issues, and this dialogue will eventually pave the way for doctrinal change.
Furthermore, the humility of the pope, which was so evident in the interview, speaks volumes about the possibility that he will be open to a more dialogical church than we have seen in years. And that can have effects on matters way beyond LGBT issues, too.
So, the path may not be straight, it may not be direct, but it will eventually lead to a church of justice and equality for all.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry